Anna Fox Rochinski | photo by Eleanor Petry | courtesy of the artist
Anna Fox Rochinski on collaboration, vulnerability, and the power of pop
From the vibrant beats of her newest songs, to the vivid colors and playful concepts of her music videos, it seems like Anna Fox Rochinski is having the most fun of her career these days. “I have egg all over my pants,” she laughs, affirming that our phone conversation earlier this month is in fact happening during an active music video shoot with director Otium (aka Alex LaLiberte).
An equal parts chill and deeply thoughtful person, Rochinski made her name in the indie music sphere over the past decade by co-fronting Quilt, the Boston-born psychedelic rock band that over the course of ten years and three albums evolved from esoteric improv and acoustic-forward tunes as heard on their self-titled debut, to the mix of of heady atmospheres and infectious hooks on 2016’s terrific Plaza LP.
Those exploratory, expansive roots are definitely present on Cherry, Rochinski’s debut solo album, out this week on New Jersey indie label Don Giovanni Records — but they’re just the starting point. The singer and songwriter put her guitar to the side for this project, began working with synthesizers and sound loops, and ended up leaping into a new creative realm, firmly embracing the boundless possibilities of pop.
Rochinski worked on the record with Carlos Hernandez and Julian Fader from the experimental Brooklyn band Ava Luna, a collaboration that kicked in right around the time she made New York City her new home. Its songs were written long before the Coronavirus pandemic ushered our world into collective upheaval, but due to their highly personal and direct lyrics reflecting on change and independence, Cherry inadvertently echoes the experience of COVID and the light of hope as its end nears. “Everything feels really good,” Rochinski says of settling into a new city, and a new phase of her life. “It’s all happening and I wasn’t even looking for it.”
Our wide-ranging chat touches on mood-boarding songs, moving beyond surrealistic metaphor, and opening up creatively as well as emotionally; read on below. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
The Key: I was so excited when you released the song “Cherry”; I love the way it reminds me of the groove-oriented direction you were starting to take on the last Quilt album, on songs like “Hissing My Plea” and especially on “Roller.” Do you feel like your solo record is a continuation of that, or do you see it as something else completely?
Anna Fox Rochinski: That’s a really good question! I think by the time that those songs were happening, the ones you just referenced, I think something inside of me was shifting, for sure. I do think you can definitely hear the early stages of this tectonic shift. It’s been amazing doing a record by myself where I can make all of these decisions, because I’m diving in headfirst into something that was maybe lying dormant and just waiting to be fully realized, for longer than I was maybe aware of in some ways, too.
TK: When did you start writing the album?
AFR: There were plenty of start-and-stop attempts at songwriting in general for the whole period of time between Quilt’s last record and now, for me. But the songs that ended up on Cherry probably began…I would say the oldest one was written maybe in 2018. But 2018 to 2019 I would say were the main years it was written.
TK: Right! I got that sense, just knowing how album production works and how long it takes; I was like “Anna probably wrote these songs two-ish years ago.” But also, there are lyrics on “Party Lines” and on the title track that seem to nod to these feelings we’re experiencing in the pandemic, of isolation and connection, either wanting space to yourself or trying to reach someone who is not necessarily there. How does this music hit differently for you now that it’s out there in this different world?
AFR: That’s so funny, I know exactly what you mean. It’s not coincidental, but the record is really dealing with confronting myself, just me, and moving through a bunch of decision-making processes and change, and embracing change and rolling with events. And now that we’ve all been through a quarantine kind of thing — and I live alone, too — it hits pretty appropriately at this point, I would say. COVID has been just like a whole other level of self-confrontation and self-reflection.
There are some lyrics on that record that weirdly sounds prescient to what was to come in some ways, and I don’t know what the deal is with that, but I can’t help but sort of laugh. There are lyrics on one song, we’re actually in the middle of a shoot for the video today, for the song “Everybody’s Down”: there are lyrics on there about boarding up doors and severance and violence, and not being safe in numbers…and, like, what? That is actually quite literally what COVID ended up being…but this song was written in 2019. So I think it’s going to hit right, to answer your question.
TK: Working with Carlos and Julian from Ava Luna, how did you link with them? Were they an band you were familiar with or played with during the Quilt years and wanted to work with them, or did you know them separate of music entirely?
AFR: Kind of both. I have been aware of and a fan of Ava Luna for a long time, and I do think that we played with them somewhere around a decade ago. I think they are so great and have a ton of respect for them, and the material they were putting out in recent years I also really fell in love with and started to pay more attention. Jeez, how did this all happen? Maybe it was through friends but all of a sudden I blinked and I was talking with them and becoming friends with them and discussing the possibility of working together, and then it honestly fell into place pretty quickly. They were like, “yep, we’ve got this studio in Dumbo, send the demos and we’ll listen to them.” “Yeah, they sound great, let’s do it!” It all was just kind of easy. What they really helped me do, besides just regular production assistance, is organizing. I had all of this material, like a lot of songs and demos I had been recording between coasts in all different places. And some of the original demoed material is all over the record, to be honest. Some of the songs we came in, and I was like “here’s my demo” and we just kind of redid all of the parts in the studio and re-recorded what was already written…but some of the demo stuff is still on there and they just made it sound really good. It’s been great working with them, they are incredible to work with.
TK: The stuff that you were demoing, were you building the beats and the atmospheres and all the different instrumental parts, or was it more skeletal than that?
AFR: Totally different for every song. Like, every song had its own creation story. It’s actually kind of funny, I’ve never done this with a record before. With Quilt, we would just go in the studio like “here we go, that’s the demo, go play the bass part through this amp…”
[This] wasn’t like that, it was complicated, I don’t really know how else to describe it.
Like “Party Lines” for example, I demoed it on my own, brought it in, and we just recorded it, like “that’s the guitar part, okay I’m going to play this,” ‘This is the bass part, Carlos is going to come up with it because I didn’t like it.” “What do we think about the drum feel? Why don’t we try this?” That song came together in like, a really straightforward way, versus one that was not straightforward. “No Better” was this very, specific kind of demo song, and I brought it in and we didn’t add a ton, we actually kind of just took away almost everything, and then I re-recorded the vocals and we added a couple of little things, but that was really it. And that was awesome to strip away rather than add in the studio.
Then the song “High Board” was recorded in New Hampshire, LA, Boston, New York City, it’s like a complete mixture of all different recordings with all different people, and Carlos and Julien helped put it together. And then “Cherry,” I texted Julien and was like “Can you email me a beat that sounds like…” and it was a combination of like four different beats that I liked. “Here’s a bunch of songs, can you just send me a beat that sounds like all of these together?” And then he did, and I sat at home and wrote out a song with the beat he sent me. All the guitar and stuff on that recording is what I did at home, and we made it sound better in the studio. So every song is different, it’s kind of hard to pin down what kind of process that is. I don’t know what to call that, other than complicated.
TK: About Don-Giovanni: they’re a label that I absolutely love, so I was really stoked to see that you were working with them and that they were going to release the record. Were you a fan of the label prior to working with them? Did you know much about the label?
AFR: I actually don’t know a lot about labels. I have some familiarity with some labels, and I was peripherally aware of them for sure, absolutely. My manager Brandon is the one that connected me with them, Joe had seen Quilt play in Ithaca and we had some mutual friends, and that was kind of like the first connection we made. This band that my friends are in, he also knows, and he was like “Oh my God I love them! How are they?” That was like a nice way to start a conversation rather than like, “Hello. I am a record label executive. Here is your contract. Let me prick your finger and you sign with some blood.” It was just a way better way vibe. I really feel like the label, for people in Philly, it’s like a beloved Philly label and I love that because I love Philly.
TK: In the blurb that came out with the record announcement, you cite a really awesomely varied range of artists that were in your head when you were putting these songs together — from Can, to Robyn’s first record. And I saw this undercurrent among them: for example, Robyn is somebody who is largely viewed as like a pop singer-songwriter who isn’t necessarily given credit for this very unique kind of “artistic approach” to her work. Whereas Can, people tend to view them in that broader krautrock / art-rock world and don’t realize how much their music impacted pop and hip-hop in particular. So it’s like, artists that have hands in arty sort of music and then are also very pop-oriented as well. So I was wondering where do you feel your record, or the songs that you’ve been writing for the record and beyond, fit on that spectrum?
AFR: I liked making that little list of inspirational artists, because it reminded me that I have this feeling of doing whatever I want. I remember being like “should this be more this or more this?” And I’m like “No way, I can do both. Fuck it.” I can do a song that combines as many elements as I want, and I’m very interested in how to creatively make that sound successful. So I don’t know if I’m really trying to fit myself into a place on like on a spectrum as you said, or that I just like to listen to what I like to listen to. I should go back and find all of the inspirations I was sending Julian and Carlos; like every morning as I was about to go in the studio, I sent them an email with a couple of YouTube links to the songs that I found inspirational for the particular song we were working on that day, and I also would email them an image that I had saved, imagery often times from old interior design catalogs.
TK: Like mood boarding a song?
AFR: Pretty much mood boarding songs, yeah, but like audio mood boarding. So it wasn’t like “I’m going to set out to make a record that has like these exact influences.” In the end I realized it’s organically what came together; one day I was feeling this one Robyn song, and one day I was feeling “can we check out this really awesome percussion on this Beck song? What’s he doing?” Like, “what would Beck do”? Instead of “what would Jesus do.” But that’s very cool, the connection you made about the way those artists kept fingers in several pies, even without doing it on purpose. That’s cool to me.
TK: Yeah, I think that there’s kind of this reaction among how folks want to think about music. “You’re pop, and pop is your lane. Robyn, you’re a pop artist.” No musician I’ve ever talked to thinks that way; everybody is exactly like you said: “I listen to a whole bunch of stuff and I want to have it all reflected in my work.”
AFR: Right. I’m also absolutely just in love with pop, and just the concept of it and the role it’s played in my entire life. I have no qualms about using that term and operating within that as like my little world, you know? I am very fascinated with the way pop music functions, not only in a very base-level way for my own mood, but sociologically too as like a universal kind of binder. I don’t know, man, I just think it’s the best.
TK: The album closer “No One Love” is pretty direct and pretty vulnerable. There’s not a lot of metaphor or ambiguity, it gets right to what the song about. What was it like for you writing that song?
AFR: Scary. Same with “No Better.” I mean, honestly, a lot of lyrics on the record are so much more direct than anything I’ve ever done, which is scary. But also great. “No One Love” is definitely like…it is good to challenge yourself with your habits, and I was so in a habit for a long time of draping my lyrics in surrealistic imagery, because that’s what I was into at the time. But it makes me feel good now to just kind of be like, this is what’s up. That song is about not using this concept of fate and destiny to keep unhealthy or toxic relationships going. “We’re supposed to be together,” therefore, I need to stay.
TK: Like there’s the lyric: “no one love is ever meant for eternity, no one love is ever destined for anything.”
AFR: Yeah. You have to put the work in if you want something that is eternal and long-lasting. Once you free yourself of this concept, then you can get down to the essence of what’s really going on in any relationship and look at it in an honest way and either keep putting the work on it or free yourself from it. It was kind of a healthy place for my mind to eventually go. And also just situations in life in general: you don’t have to stay in any situation in life if it’s not working for you, you can just leave. I think sometimes it’s just not good to put an unnecessary compulsive type of attachment onto situations. There is really no reason to do it a lot of the time. So, it was sort of wild to write lyrics on this record that felt way more personal and way more straightforward than anything I’ve ever done, honestly, but I’m very happy with the fact that I took that risk.
Anna Fox Rochinski’s album Cherry is out Friday, March 26th via Don Giovanni Records; vinyl, CD, and digital pre-orders can be purchased here.